Story last updated at 1/14/2015 - 1:56 pm
Tlingit elder and storyteller Paul Marks teaches, carves, and translates. But one of the most important aspects of being Tlingit, he says, is harder to articulate, and not quantifiable. It has to do with absorbing stories and their meaning, and making them a part of how you interact with the world.
"Just because I speak English doesn't make me a white man," he said. "Same there. Just because you speak Tlingit doesn't make you a Tlingit."
Marks, who is Raven moeity, Chookaneidi-Yadi and Yeil Hit (a child of the Chookaneidi and a member of the Yeil house) has spent most of his adult life out of Juneau.
It started when he was drafted into the Army in 1969, during the Vietnam War.
"I probably wouldn't have ever left Juneau if I hadn't gotten drafted," he said.
He went to Washington and then West Virginia, where he was trained as a power generator operator mechanic.
Though he didn't go to Vietnam - instead he was stationed in Germany for a year and a half - being drafted into the Army forced him to face his own mortality, he said.
"The closer you got to your basic training being finished, the closer you got to Vietnam... you get more anxiety," he said. "It's actually like facing death. No one talks about this. Everyone always talks about being in Vietnam. It troubles me, because we're left out. You suffered the agony of the possibility of going. I think it taught me a lot. It helped me to be more of a human being - not so arrogant or cocky."
His time in the Army also made him more curious about other places.
"It opened my excitement to travel. I loved the big city," he said.
Before moving back to Juneau in 2009, he lived in Portland, two Californian cities, Tacoma, Fairbanks, and Anchorage. Whenever he came back to Juneau throughout his travels, he quickly felt a part of life.
"People in Juneau never forgot me," he said. "Every time I come home, they treat me like I never left. Even now, they still treat me like I've always been here."
He also went to two different seminary schools, becoming a licensed minister in the 1990s. Now, he is mentored by Pastor Kirk Elmore at Landmark Apostolic Church, which meets at Thunder Mountain High School.
Seminary school wasn't a decision, he said - it was a calling.
"I feel a desire to learn more about what the Bible teaches, and to practice it," he said.
Marks' first language is Tlingit; he had to learn English when he first started school.
After that his mother, Emma Marks, talked to him in Tlingit, but his father, Willie Marks, spoke to him in English.
Even then, "it was still in Tlingit thought because it was his main thought pattern," Marks said. "He'd tell me things in Tlingit ways of thinking. He'd say 'Don't chase money. There's death in it.' So now sometimes I think to myself, 'Why did you do that to me, Dad?"" he said, laughing. "Where in America, it's the American Dream - chase the money. That's the really big difference to me. It's not that you couldn't gain wealth, it's just that you didn't want to put it as your priority."
It's from his father that Marks absorbed something that's been another constant in his life: carving.
Marks is a fourth generation carver. His father, Willie, was a well-regarded traditional carver.
He's also the youngest boy, the 15th child in a family of 16 children. Many of them are well-known - former Alaska State Writer Laureate and poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer is his sister, and many of his siblings are carvers and artists.
He carved his first totem pole, which was about an inch high, with a butcher knife, and has been carving regularly since he was around 10.
"In Tlingit the depth of thought is beyond what we see," he said. "That's what the artwork is - when you look at the artwork you don't see the surface. That's why it's not realistic. It's as if you're seeing through the particular creature you're carving."
Marks works as a language cultural specialist for the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. Though he teaches Tlingit and learned it as a child, he has more to learn, he said.
"I'm very limited, but I'm also fortunate enough to know enough to know I don't know a lot," he said. "And I'm not ashamed, not afraid to say that. I'm not going to portray myself to be an expert - and fool the outside world, because there are -there is so much. There's such a vast knowledge, all the different stories, all the different recordings, that not one person could obtain it all in a lifetime."
He's mentoring local poet Ishmael Hope in the Tlingit language through a Sealaska Heritage Institute program, and he's worked with Native organizations in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau since the 1970s, when the Indian Studies program started in Juneau.
"This (stories) is how we were taught our standards, values, principles," he said. "How to live, how to understand the world, how to understand humanity."
One example is a story about Raven, a crane, a seagull, and a trout.
Raven, who is very hungry, sees a crane catch a trout and swallow it whole.
"Oh, that looks so good to him," Marks said. "So he had an idea... he called to the seagull. 'C'mere, buddy. See that guy over there? Man, he's been really talking bad about you. Calling you a lot of names, too. I can't even say them, they're so bad. If I were you, I'd get back at him. If you get in a fight with him, kick him right under the ribs.'"
The seagull gets angry and starts fighting with the crane. He kicks him under the ribs, like Raven suggested.
"Boom, there goes the trout," Marks said.
Raven walks over to the trout and eats his fill. When he's finished, they're still fighting, and he tells them to stop.
"Be careful what people tell you about other people," Marks said.
Along those lines, he also wants to correct Western culture's vision of Tlingits as a warrior culture. Very few of the very many Tlingit stories are about fighting; much of the language is about "caring, loving, encouraging, guiding, helping to keep safe. How to stay out of a fight," he said. "But in Western culture, Tlingits are warriors. They're mean. No, we're loving and caring. If you disrespect us, because of how much we respect life, how much we respect humanity - when you disrespect us or one of our people, that tells us something's wrong with you, so we've got to destroy it. Is that being mean? No, it's caring about yourself. We have so much love for each other."
Marks also sees ways that Western culture crowds out Tlingit culture, he said.
"This is who I am," he said. "It seems to me that everyone is yielding and being subordinate to the Western culture - meaning they yield to it, look at it as higher than what they are. I'm always fighting it."
Questions, for example, are a big cultural difference between Tlingit and Western cultures, he said.
"It's difficult, because you don't ask questions, but in Western culture, they're always asking you a question. They teach the kids to ask questions," he said. "If I'm in a social situation and somebody keeps asking me questions, I just feel uncomfortable, because I'm at the mercy of the person that's asking the questions."
The timing of questions and their answers is also different.
"Mine is lengthier," he said. "They think I'm allowing them to talk and talk and talk, but I'm actually tired of it.... (as a Tlingit), you think about what's being said before you answer. In Western culture, you think on your feet. Boom boom boom boom. I see people do that and I think, 'You're lying.'"
Being Tlingit means a number of things to Marks.
"You're quiet. You think very carefully before you say anything," he said. "You don't talk too much about yourself. You give praise to others, build them up, encourage them. And just being respectful to everything and anything, because everything has a spirit."